Race, Intersectionality, and the End of the World: The Problem with The Handmaid’s Tale

by Shannon Gibney and Lori Askeland

Hulu’s reboot of The Handmaid’s Tale opens with a car chase: the protagonist (Elisabeth Moss), who will later be called “Offred,” is racing with her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) in their faded, old model Volvo through a frozen landscape, sirens of their invisible pursuers wailing.

The decision to introduce us to Offred as a member of an interracial family revealed an obvious break from the overwhelmingly white world of the novel and 1990 movie. Many reviewers construed that fact — and the powerful presence of Samira Wiley in the role of Offred’s badass lesbian friend, Moira — as undeniable evidence that the series would be more intersectional in its approach to feminist themes than the novel had been.  (“There’s intersectionality, too, with Moira, a lesbian, played by a black actress, Ms. Wiley,” was the breezy quip of the New York Times’ Katrina Onstad.) But sadly, bodies of color alone do not a liberatory racial narrative make. Indeed, a deeper look at the series shows the uncomplicated, and therefore, problematic effects of this “colorblind” casting.

Back in the world of the series’ opening sequence, the car crashes off to the side of the icy road as the pursuers gain on them, and Luke, “not-yet-Offred’s” black husband, tells his wife and child to run into the woods across the street. The camera focuses on mother and child, frantically, desperately running through the bleak landscape… until we hear the stark sound of a gunshot in the distance. The anguished look on “not-yet-Offred’s” face tells us everything we need to know: That her beloved has been killed by the insurgents, that he has in fact sacrificed himself in order for his family to live (cue sardonic groan of all viewers of color at this point, maybe three minutes into the first episode). Indeed, the frequency with which characters of color are killed off early in movies and films so that the deserving white people they love so much can live, has become something of a running joke. The trope has become so familiar to black and viewers of color that one friend called it a “blackrifice” on her social media feed.

Of course, Luke reappears in the numerous flashbacks peppered throughout the series, giving characters texture and depth via their lives pre-Gilead, and I know that legions of viewers of color are thrilled that actor O-T Fagbenle will still get work this year, even though his character is ostensibly dead. But the point remains that, narratively speaking, his role in the series as its lone sacrificial and very-much-dead black man, is suspect.

As a friend pointed out on an online discussion, the Handmaid’s Tale series is a missed opportunity to examine how evangelical movements, which are almost always patriarchal, often rely on racism to achieve their goals. I was thinking, in that first episode: Oohh: how are they going to make 2017 Luke’s experience of the patriarchy as a black man different from the experience of the novel’s white 1985 Luke? My assumption was: obviously, he will not be treated the same. When he goes out onto the street, would Moira really be likely to be “safer” with a tall, muscular black man, or would they together seem like a threat? Is his ability and right to “protect” Offred — paternalistic as it might be — going to be respected in the world as white Luke’s paternalistic rights were (except for the fact that he was divorced?). But, alas, as director Bruce Miller has noted with misplaced pride, “Once you have decided it’s going to be a diverse world, it doesn’t change the story.” When black characters are just substituted in, the post-racial optics are what allow the television show to erase any interrogation of white supremacy as a logical part of any post-apocalyptic scenario in a US context — which is what Atwood was shooting for.

Then there is the issue of Offred’s “sassy” and “take no shit/take no prisoners,” best friend Moira, who is now a black lesbian, rather than a white lesbian, in this iteration of Atwood’s world. While I was happy to see the series attempting to accurately represent contemporary America, racially and otherwise, I was let down when I realized they were attempting to do so via yet another tried and true stereotype Hollywood and white folks love to perpetuate about black folks: The “wild,” “Ride Or Die,” black lesbian friend who is “far more woke” than her perpetually meeker white female counterpart, the “sister who is just not here for this,” who through her nonconforming black female lesbian body, shows her “white sister” how to “resist.”


Which brings us to the decision to include people of color into the television series world of Gilead at all. The whiteness of the novel’s world was a deliberate erasure: not the result of a blindness on the part of the novelist that Miller’s post-racial directing is correcting, but a vital part of Atwood’s efforts to fully imagine what a theocratic revolution in the US would look like, given our history. Atwood dedicated the book to Perry Miller who taught her the history of Puritan theocracy in New England, and has repeatedly said in interviews that every incident had historical precedent.

Thus, the “Children of Ham” discussion* in chapter 14 of  the novel  can be understood as a revival  of the American Colonization Society dream: the idea, warmly supported by white abolitionist luminaries from Thomas Jefferson to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Abraham Lincoln, that the best way to “deal with” black people (when you hate slavery only a little more than you hate slaves, to paraphrase Toni Morrison), is to ship them back to any random place on the continent of Africa (Liberia eventually founded for the purpose) or perhaps to a Caribbean island. In the novel, the 1985’s Offred hears a TV News report that the “Children of Ham,” the term from biblical precedent that was regularly used to justify slavery in the US, were being shipped out to “Homelands” in the West, that a “pure” white-supremacist world could be created in Gilead, with the exception of a few “Marthas” who are “allowed” to be servants (described as brown). Atwood’s understanding of what a likely evangelical coup would look like in the US is, logically, genocidal — the Cherokee Removal also comes to mind — and focused on “racial purity.”

In an interview with TVLine, Miller suggests, in fact, that Atwood at least initially resisted the post-racial direction he was taking, saying it was:

“a huge discussion with Margaret Atwood, and in some ways it is ‘TV vs. book’ thing.” After all, on the printed page, ‘It’s easy to say ‘they sent off all the people of color,’ but seeing it all the time on a TV show is harder. ‘Also, honestly,’ he adds, ‘what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show? Why would we be covering [the story of handmaid Offred, played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss], rather than telling the story of the people of color who got sent off to Nebraska?’”

Which is, of course, a fair question of Atwood’s 1985 narrative, but not one that is simply resolved by acting as if racism is readily solved by “diversity” in the cast. (And, if we’re really dreaming, could perhaps more easily be resolved by simply making a series out of Octavia Butler’s Parable novels…!)

A television show about racists can critically examine the nature and power dynamics of the race-based hierarchy portrayed on screen, thus unhinging it for the viewer. And a television show about “nice, open-minded people” or “evil, small-minded racists” can also be racist if it relies on unexamined stereotypes to tell its story. That Miller doesn’t recognize this key difference is telling.

In a recent Think Progress piece, Miller says: “When you think about a world where the fertility rate has fallen precipitously [as it has in Gilead], fertility would trump everything. And we’ve seen that: When fertility becomes an issue, racism starts to fall because people adopt kids from Ethiopia and Asian countries and from everywhere.”

With all due respect, I wonder if Miller has heard of colonialism? That is, the process by which a country or society with more power ostensibly rapes, pillages, and reaps the natural resources (one of which is children) of a less powerful society or country, in order to gain more power and resources? Talk to transracial adoptees, and you will learn very quickly that our adoption into majority white cultures in the Global North does not necessarily or even often mean they are instantly welcoming or open to the presence of non-white bodies in their midst. The real issue is how these black, brown, and indigenous bodies are used in the service of building up these majority white societies — a key subtlety Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale  never quite seems to get to.

Indeed, Miller’s uncomplicated analysis of transracial adoption and its ubiquity signalling a new kind of racial tolerance reveals troubling fissures in his understanding of power and difference. And these fissures are unfortunately echoed in the series itself.

And yet. Despite the fact that this entire article is devoted to the series’ problems with race and representation, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale still packs an indelible punch. In today’s Trumped up world, in which white male Republicans hold the majority in both state and federal government (many of them evangelicals), and the global attack on women’s rights is steadily gaining steam, the idea that a society like Gilead could gain prominence is not so far-fetched. After all, as Glosswitch explains in The New Statesman, it is already happening:

“Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

“I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, ‘nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.’ In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, ‘Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don’t need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?’”

The timeliness of this story, given our current political reality, cannot be understated. Although critics such as Francine Prose argue that the series is simply, “…a seven-hour-long orgy of violence against women — promoted and marketed as high-minded, politically astute popular entertainment,” I believe otherwise. The show works best, and to be clear, it often does work, when it reveals the raw, visceral violence hiding at the core of most otherwise “civilized” cultures, where women are concerned. And I, for one, appreciate that the producers have not sugar-coated this truth, or made it in any way easier for viewers to digest. I also appreciate that they have opted to show how women ourselves are some of the most vicious perpetrators of violence on other women, and how this in turn keeps the whole system of patriarchy working.

That a television series, just four episodes in, should provoke such impassioned responses, and outpouring of critique and analysis, shows that it is doing some very important work. This work could be even more powerful, however, with a more complex racial lens.

Lori Askeland loves beautiful writing that engages political ideas head on, especially speculative fiction and life writing of all sorts — memoir, personal essays, journals. She’s currently a teacher of American literature and composition at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Follow on twitter: @AskelandLori



3 thoughts on “Race, Intersectionality, and the End of the World: The Problem with The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. I was forced to read The Handmaid’s Tale at school as a comparison piece to 1985. I hated it with a passion, partly because I don’t think I really comprehended it’s significance. While I wouldn’t read it again, I would consider watching this adaptation and I am grateful that I have read this critique first!

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